So many of us are out of a pandemic; how are we doing? And what can we learn from where we are at? If we believe the news, we will be tempted to be largely pessimistic. Summarizing the way and why things are the way they are, and suggesting some manageable approaches going forward, is daunting. It is so complex, and the scope of such an endeavor makes reductive oversimplification seem inevitable. But let’s try, because at a time often reserved for resolutions, having some rules of thumb based on values will provide some baseline from which we might approach some challenges. And perhaps we will see some aspects of life that, while not entirely optimistic, might be appreciated as offering some foundation for thriving. This is where such a summary might be useful: it can offer a baseline for thriving.

In the following, let me break up this summary and reflection into many parts to make it more manageable. Perhaps we can underscore some common values that buttress rules of thumb that, while contestable, may provide some way forward toward ways of thriving rather than away from it. Each section will summarize, illustrate with an example, and then reflect. In advance, let me ask your forgiveness for using some examples that are local to me. Since it is such a large task, this article will be broken up into parts.

Part 1 – The Year in Health

In the West, coming out of the pandemic of COVID 19 has been a source of joy. Being able to have the kids in school, to have freedom of movement again, and reduction of social distancing policies has been wonderful. The biggest experiment in the re-ordering of our social, private, and political boundaries brought a lot of underlying desires and resentments to light. We realized the necessity of a grand re-think of the way we travelled and commuted, worked, and shopped, the way we organized our homes, and our desires for both personal spaces and for integrated communities. But one of the most significant areas of rethink was in our newly interwoven understanding of health. We understood that mental and emotional health was inseparable from physical health. A deficiency in either mental or physical health had a near corresponding impact on the other.

From the effectiveness of vaccines to structural health systems which we rely on, to lifestyle issues relating to chronic sickness, we discovered that our deepest values for health required sustainability. For us to be truly “healthy,” whether “us” is considered individually and socially, we needed to prioritize and exercise two values to live sustainably: the practice of judgment (whether it was moral or consumer choice) needed to be owned by each individual, and the significance of our actions needed a moderate and local orientation. In other words, we needed to be oriented to our local communities, and we couldn’t pass off the responsibility of making choices about our health to some overarching agency like the government or science experts. To exemplify this, let’s look at three cases.

First, in mental health crises, there has been a marked increase of calls to suicide hotlines and in instances of self-harm including drug overdoses (intentional or otherwise). However, while suicide hotlines do help people “off the ledge”, so to speak, they have consistently identified the two necessary characteristics to intervene in a permanent and constructive way: 1) the individual will be better off if they have some deep identity connection with someone in their everyday life,  2) there is a community or a group of friends that exists and includes the individual, which is not founded on some consumer relationship. The erosion of such groups – from churches to community groups has had a causal influence on the isolation of individuals which has led to suicide and self-harm. In other words, the increasing and effective isolation more prevalent during COVID eroded already frail systems that were still nurturing mental health, such as community and family bonds. Intervening at the ledge is not a sustainable mental health strategy.

Second, the case of China’s “zero Covid” policy is being quickly shown to have a devastating effect on at least the physical health of its population. The easing of restrictions has coincided with a 300% rise of reported cases (from 100K to over 400K) – but the CBC has indicated that roughly 250 million people in China (or almost 20% of the population) are now battling COVID-related symptoms. The level of people dealing with respiratory viruses in China due to the lowered immunity caused by mandatory vaccines and isolation is astounding. The effect at children’s hospitals around Canada is only slightly less alarming. Lowered immunity to regular sicknesses has been caused by increasing interventionism by government health systems. Individuals have not owned the responsibility for health judgments, and instead of being informed by government and health expert recommendations, they have often handed over the entire responsibility to them. Both local significant action and individual responsibility for health decisions have been circumvented.

Third, the underfunding of universal healthcare systems has represented a colossal abdication of political responsibility by governments, and this to the detriment of citizen health. The nurses’ strike in the UK and the optimization of provincial healthcare under conservative provincial governments in Canada (Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario) have led to critical staff and bed shortages for what was predictably a high-demand flu season. The local concern in terms of political responsibility has just been absent – especially in Alberta. In effect, in Alberta, the trend to health service over the phone reflected a lack of concern for sustained health. Instead, it mirrored the problems that have been made evident in the mental health crisis – it worked at the ledge, and not much at the many potential turning points away from the ledge on the way to it.

What does this year in health tell us? Well, given the emphasis on moments of ill health and crisis, and little on lifestyle-related diseases, it tells us that we have indeed not been able to practice sustainability, moderation, and the nurturing of individual health judgment. And these seem contradictory to some of our most expressed values. We are thus less aware of our own internal contradictions.

How can we move toward thriving? First, let us understand that addiction (which can have serious physical and economic costs) is primarily a substitution for more sustainable ecosystems of mental, emotional, and spiritual health. Further, we need to reorient ourselves toward eating food, and not food substitutes. I recommend reading two books by Michael Pollen: In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. This two-pronged approach will help one address lifestyle-related sicknesses associated with our social and dietary ecosystems. And they will return our own sense of individual judgment about our own health into the place of a situated individual acting locally.

Having written this admittedly brief review of the year in health, there will be more installments in this 2022: Year in Review. However, let us remember this year as one in which the authentic need to be responsible for decisions that have local effects is a guiding theme in all areas of our lives. It will turn out that the structures for authentic living offer us important values that lead us toward thriving.

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